Europe fails refugees again

by Chris Bertram on March 5, 2020

Once again, Europe is failing in its duties towards refugees. The latest episode is [the decision of Turkey’s President Erdoğan to permit and even to encourage thousands of people to cross into Greece]( in order to pressure the EU to do more to support Turkey in its conflict with Russia and the Assad regime in Syria’s Idlib province, itself a site of mass forced displacement where people who have fled Aleppo and other conflict areas in Syria are now concentrated. Erdoğan’s instumentalization of migrants and refugees is cynical and calculated, but that doesn’t excuse the failure of Europe to do its part. Turkey already hosts 3.7 million displaced people from Syria on its territory and the EU has viewed the country as a convenient buffer to keep them from its borders, paying Erdoğan €6 billion to warehouse them.

In recent times refugees who have reached Greece have been [penned in overcrowded camps on the Greek islands, such as Moria on Lesbos]( and now the BBC has [disturbing footage of children in pens at Mytilene port]( If the EU uses Turkey as a holding cage for refugees, it also sees Greece as its next line of interior defence, however much the hapless Ursula von Leyden might declare her “solidarity” with the country. Greece is now using force to repel “illegal” border crossers and is refusing to assess claims for asylum. (Although those is its camps are already facing two-year delays for the assessment of their claims). All of this a clear breach of international law under which refugees have a plain right to have their claims for asylum assessed, where unauthorized border-crossing is not illegal for refugees, and where states that are parties to the Refugee Convention have strict duties of non-refoulement. Von der Leyden [has expressed her sympathy for those “lured by false promises”]( but the principal false promises are those made by the states she represents when they voluntarily became parties to the Convention.

It might be possible to have a bit more sympathy with Europe’s leaders if it were not plain that their policy is to keep out refugees by any means necessary. Other, poorer, countries, including Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Jordan and Lebanon do far more for refugees that these wealthy states. Europe does next to nothing by way of refugee resettlement and the conditions in places like Moria make even Donald Trump look welcoming and enlightened. The EU supposedly wishes to uphold a liberal international order, but a key component of that order and its claim to legitimacy (see [David Owen’s recent book]( is to take responsibility for the human beings that order fails when the states that are supposed to protect their human rights percecute them or when those states disintegrate in conflict, as Syria has. You cannot preach about internationalism, the rule of law and human rights if you can’t uphold those “European values” on your own territory and borders.



steven t johnson 03.05.20 at 2:31 pm

It is indeed horrible. I am not sure that moral indignation will ensure moral suasion.

Greece is a wealthy state, made wealthy enough by the EU to resolve the refugee problems without true difficulty?

Greece is an independent power that does what it wants, regardless of the EU?

Turkish war in Syria really has nothing to do with the US and its ally, the EU?

The EU’s foreign policy in the middle east is focused on ending wars propelling the displacement of refugees?

Perhaps the horrible events in Greece are consequences of long-standing policies rather than fresh enormities freely chosen by malicious Greeks who have failed the EU?

I am not sure that people in the EU have any input into these things. I am inclined to believe that the EU is designed so that people don’t have much input into anything the EU does.


MisterMr 03.05.20 at 3:21 pm

Unfortunately, while I agree that EU’s behavior towards refugees is a scandal (and I’m personally for open borders to economic migrants too), I think that public opinion in the EU is totally anti immigrants, refugees included, so this particular bad policy cannot be attributed to a lack of internal democracy.


JohnTitor 03.05.20 at 5:27 pm

>in order to pressure the EU to do more to support Turkey in its conflict with Russia and the Assad regime in Syria’s Idlib province

This is a rather curious way of putting it. If your description of the situation in northern Syria doesn’t include the words “ISIS” and “Kurds”, you might be missing some important aspects…


Fake Dave 03.06.20 at 12:09 am

@JohnTitor 3

The Kurdish YPG and affiliated groups are mostly active in Afrin, North Aleppo, and east of the Euphrates. They don’t have much presence in Idlib proper. Turkey definitely wants to keep it that way. ISIS used to have a presence in the province, but was driven out by Tahrir Al-sham (HTS) after the Jihadis went to war with each other.

HTS is the successor organization to the Nusra Front, the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate and now control about half of Idlib while Turkish proxies of varying degrees of viciousness control the other half in addition to occupying Afrin and parts of North Aleppo province.

The biggest issue right now is that HTS wasn’t a party to the “ceasefire” Russia and Turkey negotiated. Their leadership are justifiably considered international terrorists so no one wants to be seen working with them and, with the borders closed, there’s nowhere to go. Millions of innocent civilians are right there with them. Their backs are against the walls and Assad is determined to wipe them out because he can’t declare victory while there’s still a whole province in rebellion. His tenuous grip on power is based entirely on the premise that he’s the only one who can put Syria back together (because he’s the one that broke it, I guess). He can’t afford to show any weakness.

Turkey wants its people to stay in control of Northwestern Syria so that there’s somewhere for the rebels and refugees to go besides Assad’s dungeons or camps on the border. They’ve used this idea if a sanctuary/resettlement zone as a justification before when they fought the YPG/SDF (both times Trump sold them out), but the second offensive failed to gain much ground even before the Russians brokered a deal between the Kurds and Assad to keep the Turks out. Since then, all eyes have been on Idlib and no one wants to back down.


Kien 03.06.20 at 12:22 am

Thank you for drawing attention to our collective responsibility to refugees. Like climate change, it’s a “wicked problem” entailing free-riding with long-term benefits that afffect future generations but with upfront costs.


Matt 03.06.20 at 1:33 am

It seems clear to me that something like the Orderly Departure Program put in place, slowly, to address refugee flows after the Vietnam was is required for Syria and N. Africa. It would likely have to be larger. And, unfortunately, I don’t see much call for it among people who have the power to do anything. (In the Vietnam case, some sympathy could be generated even among Republicans by noting that the program was designed to benefit our “anti-communist” friends. I’m not sure if there is a similar ground to help build popular sympathy in Europe now, but would be glad to hear from people who know more about the local politics.)


Zamfir 03.06.20 at 10:42 am

I am not sure that people in the EU have any input into these things. I am inclined to believe that the EU is designed so that people don’t have much input into anything the EU does.

Thats about the opposite of what’s happening… The EU institutions push every year for distribution of refugees over the wider EU, away from Greece and Italy. And it doesn’t happen, because national governments torpedo the plans. Some of them vocally, others quietly. And national goverments have the real power in the EU, not Brussels.

Those government do so because they are, in fact, responsive to the input from their citizens. Sadly, that input says that refugees should should be kept far far away, dead in te waves if needed.

Seriously, this is not an issue you can blame on the EU as an unaccountable undemocratic institution. It’s very much the people of Europe (including the UK) getting what they ask for.

@Matt, I am afraid I am not seeing much support like that. I don’t have hard evidence, but it feels to me as if the current refugees are more unpopular than I have seen before (and support for refugees was never as great as one might hope). “Muslims from the Mediterranean” were aready high on the hate lists. This attitude influenced the views of the civil wars. People have a deep-seated confidence that “those people” were trying to get to Europe anyway, and the wars are a convenient excuse for them.

I might have seen a similar attitude among USAsians, about refugees from central America. They can’t be real refugees , because people from there are always trying to sneak over the border.


Nicholas Martin 03.06.20 at 12:01 pm

With all due respect for Chris Bertram, but framing this in terms of “Europe” or “the EU” is a bit disingenuous, esp. coming from a Brit. For one, as @Zamfir points out, these decisions are fundamentally taken by the Member States, not the EU (let alone “Europe”, whatever that may be). So please be clear about where responsibilities lie and do not lie. If v.d. Leyen seems “hapless” that is likely because she has little power over the MS. (I do not judge whether that is a good or a bad thing.)

For another, the UK has taken very few refugees/migrants compared to the EU states – less even than the (much poorer) Greece, less than half of Italy, not even 40% of France and barely 11% of the numbers Germany took in. Cf. Eurostat data, total number of Asylum applications 2015 – 2019

– EU 28: 4.664.080, thereof:
– GER: 1.794.020
– F: 509.130
– It: 438.925
– Greece: 267.210
– UK: 198.350


So before complaining about “Europe” or the EU “failing” refugees, how about complaining that the UK is failing them? Nothing stops the UK from sending naval & merchant vessels to collect these people in Turkey and take them to the UK. (Nor does anything stop you from campaigning for that. I strongly suggest sweeping one’s own porch first, before complaining about others’.)


William Charles 03.06.20 at 1:55 pm

I agree that there is plenty of blame to spread around but it is more appropriately directed at national governments than EU institutions. The UK is again not covering itself in glory either.


Chris Bertram 03.06.20 at 4:43 pm

@Nicholas Martin I don’t know who you are, but if you knew me you would know that I have been far from silent on the UK’s shameful record on refugees, which I entirely accept is much worse than some EU countries. I do slightly resent the suggestion, though because of my own nationality I shouldn’t complain about what other countries do.


nastywoman 03.06.20 at 5:34 pm

”I do slightly resent the suggestion, though because of my own nationality I shouldn’t complain about what other countries do”.

Each time I suggested in the UK or in the US or in Italy that these countries should do at least as much as Germany did – some Brits or Americans suggested that I should keep my mouth shut – and so –
I now –
also –
tend to say ”the EU should do more…”


MisterMr 03.06.20 at 6:39 pm

I would add that Greece has 10 million citizens, against for example Germany’s 80 millions, Italy 60 millions, France 67 millions, which make Greece’s numbers way more impressive.


harry b 03.07.20 at 2:48 pm

“So before complaining about “Europe” or the EU “failing” refugees, how about complaining that the UK is failing them?”

He does. Over and over again. He’ll do it after complaining about Europe as well. You took the trouble to figure out he is British — in fact its a small step to figure out that he works with a refugee rights group and writes frequently about migration and refugees, and is a strong critic of UK policy and practice.

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